Don't Shoot the Critic

By Jacobson, Howard | The Evening Standard (London, England), December 30, 2002 | Go to article overview
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Don't Shoot the Critic

Jacobson, Howard, The Evening Standard (London, England)


NO ONE in possession of their reason expected a literary critic to be among the winners of BBC2's party game to find the greatest Briton of all time. With barely a handful of writers of the sort we call " imaginative" managing to do better on the list than Boy George, a mere discourser on literature was never in the hunt. Tough on those of us who like to think we have one, but a critical mind is not a measure of greatness for most Britons.

Among the literary, though, it would not be unreasonable to hope for some enthusiasm for criticism.

Novels and poems come and go, but distinguished criticism is rare; not because it is unessayed, but because it is difficult to pull off. A novelist has only to look about him; a critic has to look about him, and to look at how others do their looking, too. I doubt we all have a novel in us, but the evidence suggests that more of us have a novel than an intelligent essay on literature. We should cherish, then, those capable of producing such, on the few occasions they come along.

Which brings me to FR Leavis, at one time the only literary critic of whom an averagely educated person would have heard, famous for the tenacity with which, from behind his fortifications at Downing College, Cambridge, he defended English studies, famous for the fastidiousness of his discriminations (Lawrence yes, Joyce no), and famous for attacking the uncultured two-culturedness of CP Snow.

Born in 1895 and dead now for nearly a quarter of a century, Leavis remains negatively alive, in the sense that we cannot stop picking over his bones. I say "remains", but in fact there is almost a resurgence of this negative interest in him, coincident with the fading of that craze for theory which, for a while, rendered redundant actual criticism of the sort Leavis practised - the most scrupulous attention to the deployment of language, fierce partisanship for the work as opposed to the incidentals of biography and ideology, the discovery of idea in emotion and the wakening of thought in sense.

Among disenchanted theorists of my acquaintance, there is evident, if uncomfortable, nostalgia for such Leavisite practices as close textual analysis (otherwise known as reading) and holding the conviction that some books more reward study than others.

Elsewhere the name is invoked as though it is a ghost haunting the present, but one we wish would leave us alone.

The most puzzling of which invocations, to my mind, was Martin Amis's in an article about writing post-11 September (published in The Guardian some months ago), a highly Leavisite argument for the ideological unrelatedness of literature which paradoxically turned on Leavis midstream as though the author had to show he could make it to the bank unaided. Here is not the place to argue the details of Amis's anti-Leavism, but you know something is amiss when so confirmed an enemy of the commonplace resorts to those terrible twins of clichEd disapproval, " provinciality and humourlessness", in order to nail Leavis back into his coffin.

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